By Emily Osborne on June 22, 2012

head coldA recent study says allowing workers paid sick leave could account for healthier families and more than one billion dollars in savings -- but the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker are fighting it.

According to a report released by the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR), two-fifths of private sector employees go without access to paid sick leave, accounting for 1.3 million more hospital emergency department visits and delayed medical care for workers and their families.

Emergency room use has increased 30 percent in the last decade, and is a source of rising health care costs. By providing sick pay and eliminating many of these ER costs, the report says, the United States would save $1.1 billion in health care costs annually with more than $500 million of these savings allotted to public programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Increasing worker's access to paid sick leave is a "low-cost route to reining in emergency department costs while simultaneously improving heath," states the report.

Governor Walker Reverses Milwaukee's Paid Sick Leave Ordinance

Four U.S. cities -- San Francisco, Washington DC, Philadelphia and Seattle -- currently have laws guaranteeing paid sick leave for working residents.

Milwaukee also passed a paid sick leave ordinance via referendum in 2008, with over 70 percent of the popular vote. The law was subsequently challenged by the local chapter of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and after years of legal wrangling, an appellate court upheld the law in March of 2011. In May, however, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker overrode the local ordinance, preempting it by changing state law.

When Governor Walker and state legislators overrode this ordinance, they not only steamrolled local democratic will (overriding a law that passed by an overwhelming vote), but they also repealed the rights of working people to get medical treatment they need, lead healthier lives, and help safeguard the health of their families, coworkers and customers.

ALEC Sick of Paid Sick Leave

Wisconsin's paid sick leave bill was subsequently brought to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the corporate-funded bill mill where right-wing legislators and corporations vote as equals to approve legislation as "models" for introduction in other states.

According to materials obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy, paid sick leave was a hot topic on the agenda for ALEC's 2011 Annual Meeting. "Paid family medical leave" was the only topic of discussion by the Labor and Business Regulation Subcommittee of the Commerce, Insurance and Economic Development Task Force, according to the meeting minutes.

Meeting attendees were given complete copies of Wisconsin's 2011 Senate Bill 23 (now Wisconsin Act 16) as a model for state override. They were also handed a target list and map of state and local paid sick leave policies prepared by the National Restaurant Association, an ALEC member whose local chapters are opposing sick leave ordinances across the country.

Massachusetts Demonstrates Nationwide Support for Paid Sick Leave

Despite the best efforts of ALEC and its allies, some states are moving forward with paid sick leave laws.

Massachusetts Representative Kay Khan (D-Newton) introduced H 3995, a bill that would require small businesses provide unpaid sick leave and exempts seasonal employees from sick benefits. Massachusetts is taking its cues from Connecticut, the first state to guarantee paid sick leave for all working residents. Kahn says support for the bill -- which would allow employees to earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked -- is gaining in the legislature.

Business groups like the Associated Industries of Massachusetts and big business front group National Federation of Independent Business have resisted mandated sick leave. But according to the IWPR, sick leave could save Massachusetts state employees $26 million a year, reduce emergency room visits, and save the state $74 million annually in health care costs.

"You know we did want to listen to the business community, but we feel that in terms of cutting the cost of health care, that's important. I think also employees feel more valued if they know they can take the time off," said Kahn.

New York legislators introduced a similar bill, the New York City Paid Time Bill, to help workers without paid sick leave benefits. The bill is currently pending before the legislature.

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